It comes as no real surprise that the Lakers and Nuggets are the last two teams standing in the Western Conference. Denver steamrolled through New Orleans and Dallas in five games apiece with offensive and defensive precision, and comes into this series rested and healthy. Although the Lakers' lack of consistency has been a concern, they arguably had the tougher road, with the physical, seasoned Utah Jazz in the first round and the gritty Houston Rockets taking them the full seven games. The quick, 48-hour turnaround certainly favors Denver.
The Lakers won three of the four regular-season meetings, but none of these games authentically mirrored the exact matchups in this series, as key players missed games for both teams. With the Nuggets having truly found themselves and the Lakers working Andrew Bynum back into the lineup, we will now see these teams at full strength against each other for the first time this season.
Lakers offense vs. Nuggets defense
In the playoffs, the Lakers rank fourth in offensive efficiency, while continuing to play at the fourth-fastest pace. They are fourth in offensive field goal percentage, and rank second in 3-point shooting percentage in the playoffs.
The Nuggets rank third in defensive efficiency in the playoffs, fourth in field goal percentage defense and seventh in rebound rate. Among playoff teams, they are second in steals and fifth in blocked shots.
The Lakers will look to pound Denver inside, playing high-low with Bynum and Pau Gasol, and posting Kenyon Martin whenever he is matched on either. This could force Denver to go bigger with Chris Andersen earlier in the game.
Expect Kobe Bryant to attack Dahntay Jones, who will try to play the designated defender role that Shane Battier played against Bryant in the Houston series. But Jones is smaller and has been foul prone against Bryant this season, so Kobe will go at him early and often.
Trevor Ariza will look to spot up for 3s and attack in transition, while Derek Fisher will play more of the facilitator to get the ball to Bryant, Gasol and Bynum, as those three combined for 76 points in their April 9 win over the Nuggets in L.A.
Lamar Odom can go inside or outside based on his matchup off the bench, and the Lakers must continue to get solid 3-point shooting from their perimeter subs.
With the Nuggets switching schemes, the Lakers will look to isolate the favorable matchups in the half court, and push the pace as Denver tries to match up in transition.
Denver cannot be casual in its transition pickups, and must get the proper matchups and switch less against the Lakers to try to keep its best defenders on the Lakers' scorers.
Nuggets offense vs. Lakers defense
Denver has been far and away the best offensive team in this year's playoffs, ranking first in offensive efficiency, first in field goal percentage, first in 3-point percentage and first in scoring while playing at the third-fastest pace.
In the playoffs, L.A. is third in defensive efficiency and third in field goal percentage defense. The Lakers are also third in steals, third in blocked shots and sixth in rebound rate.
The Nuggets will attempt to get Carmelo Anthony going early in this series, trying to exploit his matchup with Ariza and Luke Walton. Anthony will get his opportunities all over the floor, from posting inside to facing up on the wing to pull-ups in transition. With L.A. flooding the ball side with a help defender, Anthony may get more catches above the elbows or at the top of the floor.
Chauncey Billups will look to score early with his 3-point shot in transition and drives against Fisher. On crucial fourth-quarter possessions, expect L.A. to put Bryant on either Melo or Billups.
Nene has been Denver's third option in the half court, and look for him to use his quickness against Bynum, and to be the primary ball screener in the half court. Martin will roam for short jump shots and flashes to the ball -- staying more in the high-post area and the short corner.
If Gasol or Odom bring help on Anthony, Martin will be a threat on the offensive glass. Jones will look to spot up in the half court and space the floor, trying to keep Bryant from lurking for steals and forcing the second and third rotations of L.A.'s defense.
J.R. Smith will lead Denver's bench attack, and as Denver's third-leading scorer in the playoffs, Smith will look for 3s in transition and drives to the rim in the half-court sets. It was Denver's bench that provided the spark in its win over the Lakers back in February, and Linas Kleiza, Andersen and Anthony Carter must continue to bring the points for the second unit as they have throughout the playoffs so far.
L.A. will try to flood Melo's side with help, keep him from driving middle and look to maintain its dominance on the boards; the Lakers have outrebounded the Nuggets in all four games this season.
Billups: He will run the Nuggets' show, and possibly look to score more in his matchup with the smaller Lakers point guards. He knows when guys need the ball, and when his team needs him to score.
Billups is having an MVP-caliber playoff run so far, averaging 22.1 points and 7.3 assists, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3. In three games vs. the Lakers this season, he averaged 18 ppg and 7.6 apg on 47 percent shooting. He had 22 points, six assists and four steals in the Nuggets' Feb. 27 win.
Billups' leadership and steady play will be a key, as he has already beaten Kobe and the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.
Fisher: He will focus on ball movement, 3-point shooting and perimeter defense against Billups. He is averaging 7.2 points and 2.0 assists in the playoffs, but shooting only 36 percent from the field and making just 6 of 31 3s (19.4 percent). In four games vs. the Nuggets this season, Fisher averaged 7.3 points on 11-for-19 shooting (37.9 percent) and made 5 of 16 3-pointers.
Jones: He has the toughest role to play as Bryant's primary defender. He's averaged only 15 minutes per game in three starts vs. L.A. this season, and picked up four, four and five fouls guarding Bryant. Jones is a better offensive player and shooter than given credit for, averaging 7.6 points on 54 percent shooting in the playoffs.
Bryant: Although not having the scoring explosions we have seen in playoffs past, Bryant is scoring when he needs to, averaging 27.4 points on 45 percent shooting in the playoffs. More importantly, he is playing with an air of confidence and invincibility that should have the Nuggets worried that the explosions are about to come.
Bryant has owned Denver this season, averaging 31 points on 47 percent shooting, while getting to the foul line 39 times in four games. With Denver being a bigger, better challenge than the hobbled Rockets, expect Bryant to be the most aggressive he has been in the playoffs so far. If Kobe sees LeBron on the horizon, this could be a nightmare for Jones.
Anthony: Not only has Anthony advanced beyond the first round for the first time, he is playing the best basketball of his career. He has averaged 27.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, while shooting 48 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3. However, he has struggled against the Lakers and their multiple help defenders this season -- they crowd him as he attacks and take away his driving lanes. In four games vs. L.A., Anthony averaged only 14.5 points on 22-for-67 shooting (32.8 percent) and was just 3-for-15 from the 3-point line.
He and Billups will be the crunch-time closers, and the Nuggets can't win without points and energy from Melo. This will be the biggest test of his pro career.
Ariza: Ariza's main focus in this series will be his defense of Anthony. This could effect Ariza's offensive playoff numbers of 10.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists on 54 percent shooting. Ariza has also made 10 of 20 3-pointers He started only one of the four games vs. Denver this year, averaging 4.5 points, making only 5 of 26 from the field.
Martin: In spite of Dirk Nowitzki's huge numbers in the West semis, Martin did a solid job on him when isolated one-on-one. He will have his hands full with the bigger Gasol and more versatile Odom.
He gets his offense on scraps from the others, with flashes to the basket, short jump shots and offensive rebounds. He is averaging 9.9 points and 5.1 rebounds in the playoffs, while shooting 52 percent from the field. He averaged 10.3 points against the Lakers during the season, and may get more opportunities with all the attention Anthony's way.
Gasol: Gasol has played with consistent excellence in the playoffs this season, averaging 18.5 points and 10.8 rebounds on 55 percent shooting. He has been the best big man on the floor in both series, and expect him to step up his offense with potential matchup problems for Denver inside. His stats vs. Denver this season almost mirror his current playoff numbers; he averaged 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds on 48 percent shooting, including a monster 27 points and 19 rebounds in L.A.'s April 9 win.
Nene: He continues to impress with his athleticism and quickness, and can score in transition, on pick and rolls, and in the post. He averaged 16.0 points and 6.8 rebounds against Dallas, and in three games vs. L.A., he averaged 14.0 points on 51 percent shooting. He missed the only game Denver won in the regular-season series.
Look for him to race Bynum and Gasol down the floor, looking for easy baskets in early transition.
Bynum: Bynum's interior presence presents matchup difficulties for Denver, and how the Nuggets decide to play him will determine his effectiveness and his minutes. In his first game back from his injury on April 9 against Denver, Bynum had 16 points and seven rebounds in just 21 minutes, besting both Nene and Andersen inside. His playoff averages of 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds should go up significantly in this series.
Chris Andersen: The Birdman has become the anchor of the Nuggets' defense and the energy boost off the bench. He will get extended minutes if Bynum and Gasol are too much inside. Andersen is averaging 6.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 21 minutes in the playoffs. He had 11 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots in Denver's February win over the Lakers.
J.R. Smith: He's the go-to guy on Denver's second unit, and will play for Jones if the Nuggets need more scoring in the second half. He's averaging 16.3 points in 26 minutes in the playoffs, and averaged 18.0 points in four games against the Lakers this season, shooting only 40.7 percent, but getting to the foul line 24 times. Smith had 22 points in the Nuggets' only win over L.A. in the regular season.
Linas Kleiza: He brings rebounding and 3-point shooting to the second unit. In four games vs. L.A. this season, he averaged 9.0 points on 16-for-37 FG shooting (43.2 percent) while hitting only 1-for-16 from 3. He's averaging 6.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 14 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Anthony Carter: He runs the point for the second unit. He had 20 points and six assists vs. L.A. in a Nov. 1 start before the Billups trade. He had only seven points and six assists combined in the three later games against the Lakers in the regular season. He's averaging 3.5 points and 2.8 assists in 16 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Lamar Odom: Odom's minutes and numbers have dropped with Bynum's continued integration back into the lineup. He went from averaging 17.8 points in 36 minutes against Utah to only 8.7 points in 28 minutes against Houston. But Odom has continued to rebound at a double-figure clip and will be a primary help defender against Anthony. He averaged 10.5 points on 37 percent shooting and 9 rebounds in four games against Denver this season.
Luke Walton: He provides an all-around game, and he will see time defending Anthony off the bench. He's averaging 4.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 15 minutes in the playoffs.
Shannon Brown: He has averaged 6.5 points in 15 minutes a game in the playoffs, making 10 of 17 3s. His scoring and athleticism have helped round out L.A.'s second unit.
Jordan Farmar: He'll back up Fisher at the point and help to combat the explosiveness of Denver's second unit. Averaged 7.7 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting against Denver.
Sasha Vujacic: His minutes may continue to diminish; he has shot poorly from the 3-point line in the playoffs (10-for-33) and even worse against Denver in the regular season (2-for-17). He was very ineffective vs. the Nuggets this season, picking up five fouls in 13 minutes in the Lakers' Feb. 27 loss.
The Nuggets may very well be the hottest team left in the playoffs, but that doesn't make them the better team in this series. Denver is certainly capable of advancing to the Finals, but it is no longer matched up with two clearly inferior opponents. Billups must lead and elevate Anthony's play, and the Nuggets' newfound defensive identity will be put to the ultimate test.
The Lakers cannot afford to continue with their "switch on, switch off" inconsistency, because Denver is not a team that will roll over when the Lakers decide to play. If L.A. digs itself a hole, rather than being able to claw its way out, the Nuggets may very well bury the Lakers in it.
As good as Denver has been, the Lakers are still the team to beat in the West. And with the Lakers having home-court advantage, as well as the best closer on the planet, look for L.A. to advance to the Finals once again.
Prediction: Lakers win series, 4-2
Mike Moreau is the director of basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. He also serves as an NBA analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.